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Page 26

"It makes no sense for him to be afraid," I say. "I gave him the armlet. I let him kill Shaeva. Why the hells should he be afraid of me?"

My voice rises, and on the other side of the courtyard, Taure and Zella exchange a glance before making themselves scarce.

"Because you can stop him, and he knows it." Darin tightens the brace he has fashioned for his left hand. He uses it in place of his two missing fingers, to steady his hammers, and I almost never see him without it. This time, he clips in his scim hilt instead of a hammer. "Why else would he kill Shaeva or ally himself with the Commandant? Why ensure the Waiting Place is in disarray? Why sow so much chaos if he's not afraid of failing? And"--Darin pulls me up--"why else would he turn up the very moment you realized you might get answers from the Kehanni?"

That fact escaped me, and it makes me even more eager to speak to the Tribeswoman. When the skies is Musa going to be back?

"Spiro would kill me if he saw how little artistry that has." Darin nods to my blade. "But if they're true Serric steel, we can celebrate that, at least. Come on. Maybe this is the batch that won't break."

Sparks fly as Darin's scim and mine crash against each other. The last set of blades we tried didn't break until well into our battle, so I settle in for an arduous contest. After a few minutes, the rough simplicity of the blade has raised blisters on my palms. It is so different from the fine dagger Elias gave me. But it holds.

Zella and Taure emerge from the house, watching with growing excitement when, even after I press the attack, the blades remain whole.

Darin assails me, and I let my ferocity loose, pouring my frustration into every blow. Finally, my brother calls a halt, unable to suppress a grin. He takes the blade from me.

"It has no heart." He hefts it, and his eyes sparkle as they haven't in months. "No soul. But it will do. On to the next."

Zella and Taure join us as we spar across the courtyard, as one after the other, the blades finally hold true. I do not notice Musa until he steps from the house to applaud jauntily.

"Beautiful," he says. "I had full faith that you--"

I grab Musa by the arm and drag him toward the front door, ignoring his curses of protest. "I need to see a Kehanni, and I've been waiting hours for you to return."

"The Tribes left Adisa to fight the Martials in the desert," Musa says. "They're not holding back, either." With a chill, I remember Afya speaking of the attacks on Martial villagers.

"Well, they can't be far outside the city," I say. "I just saw a Kehanni telling stories near Adisa's main market. Silver hair, purple-and-white wagons."

"Tribe Sulud," Musa says. "I know the Kehanni you speak of. She won't just tell you what you want to know, Laia. She'll want payment."

"Fine, we'll pay her. Whatever she wants--"

"It's not that simple." Musa pulls his arm from my grip. "She's not a street hawker selling cheap trinkets. She tells stories on her terms. Traditional gifts for such exchanges are items we don't have access to: bolts of silk, chests of gold, stores of food."

I examine him up and down, from the silver-buckled boots to the soft leather breeches to the shirt made of finely spun cotton. "Don't tell me you're not wealthy. Taure said your father used to harvest half the honey in Marinn."

"I have some clothes. A bit of gold," he says. "But the Mariners seized my wealth and my property and my hives and inheritance when--" He shakes his head. "Anyway, they took it, and now my means are limited."

Zella and Taure exchange a glance at that, and I remind myself to find them later. I need answers about Musa's past, and it's clear he won't give them to me. My brother still clutches one of the new scims. Sunlight glances off the blade, hitting me in the face.

"I know what to offer her," I say. "Something she'll want. Something she can't refuse."

Musa follows my gaze to the Serric steel blade. I expect him to tell me the Scholars need the blades more or that we don't have enough. Instead, he raises his eyebrows.

"You know what the Tribes are doing in the south," he says. "They're showing no mercy to any Martial--whether soldier or civilian."

I flush. "Do you have information for me on the Nightbringer?" Musa, of course, shakes his head. "Then this is the best chance we have to learn something--if Darin agrees to part with the blades, of course."

Darin offers a resigned sigh. "You need to stop the Nightbringer," he says. "You need information to do it. I'm certain she'll take the blades. But, Laia--"

I cross my arms, waiting for his criticism.

"Mother made exchanges like this," he says. "Exchanges that she perhaps didn't want to make. She did it for the good of her people. It's why she was the Lioness. Why she was able to lead the Resistance. But in the end, it added up. It cost her. And it cost us."

"Mother did what she had to," I say. "It was for us, Darin, even if it didn't feel like it. Skies, I wish I had half her courage, half her strength. I'm not--this isn't easy. I don't want innocents hurt. But I need something on the Nightbringer. I think Mother would agree."

"You don't--" Something flickers in Darin's face--pain, perhaps, or anger, emotions he tries to keep as deeply buried as a Mask would. "You have your own strength," he finally says. "It doesn't have to be the same as the Lioness's."

"Well, this time it does." I harden myself, because if I don't, then I'm back to figuring out what the hells I can take the Kehanni when what I should be doing is getting to her as fast as possible. Beside me, Musa shakes his head, and I turn on him, temper rising.

"You wanted me to be a Resistance leader," I say. "Here's a lesson I learned from the last Resistance fighter I knew. To lead, you have to do ugly things. We leave in an hour. Come along or stay. It doesn't matter to me."

I do not wait for Musa's answer as I walk away. But I feel his surprise, and Darin's. I feel their disappointment. And I wish it did not bother me so much.

XXI: Elias

The screams echoing from the Tribal encampment are distinctly human, and they grow louder by the moment. I sprint toward them, Aubarit and Afya following, the latter demanding that I explain what's happening.

"Get to shelter." I cut off the Zaldara's tirade. "I'll answer your questions later--just hide."

Dozens of people flee the Nur caravan, and as I approach it, I draw my scims. The closest screams come from a bright green wagon covered in mirrors. I know it well. It belongs to Afya's little brother, Gibran.

The back of the wagon bursts open, and the handsome young Tribesman emerges. He grabs a man from within the wagon and tosses him like a rag doll.

"Uncle Tash!" Afya gasps and runs past me, toward her brother. "Gib, no!"

Her brother turns to look at her, and the Tribeswoman slowly backs away, her face frozen in terror. Gibran's eyes are pure white. He's possessed. The escaped ghost has taken over his body.

Because I didn't pass them through fast enough. Because there are too many, and they have no place to go but back into the world of the living.

Gibran lunges for Afya. Though she is a dozen feet away, he reaches her in one leap and lifts her up by her throat. The small woman kicks out at him, her face purpling. Before I can get to him, Gibran throws her too.

My Mask's instinct kicks in, and I drop into a stalking crouch. If I can knock the Tribesman unconscious, perhaps something in Aubarit's Mysteries will tell me how to exorcise the ghost.

But a ghost-possessed Tribesman is no ordinary foe. The way he threw Afya makes it clear that the spirit within him has physical powers far beyond what Gibran himself possesses.

My skin prickles. He's seen me. I duck behind a wagon. He knows I'm coming, but I don't have to make it easy for him.

In the distance, a group of men and women snatch up children and race for the river, Aubarit screaming at them to move faster. I scan the riverbank for Afya, but she has disappeared.

When I turn back to Gibran, he's gone. Idiot, Elias. Never turn your back on a foe. I sheathe my scims--I don't want to hurt him.

Too late

, I hear a whoosh in the air--attack! Gibran is on my back, and I lurch to my knees beneath his unnatural weight. His arm, thin but muscled from months of battling Martials, comes around my throat, and he has the strength of five men. He babbles in my ear, his voice a fey growl.

"They razed it, burned it, corn silk and blood and flour--"

I know I can die as Soul Catcher. But by the skies, I won't die by the hand of a ghost-possessed Tribesman choking the life out of me while gibbering in my ear.

I claw at Gibran's arm, unnerved by his strength. Suddenly, a metallic thunk reverberates, and his hold loosens. Gasping and grabbing my throat, I back away from him to see Afya holding a cast-iron pan. She retreats from Gibran, who, though momentarily weakened, is getting to his feet.

"Run!" I bellow at Afya, leaping upon Gibran's back. "To the river! Run!" She whirls as Gibran goes down. He's impossible to keep in one place. I land a blow on his head. A second. A third. Skies, I'm going to have to kill him if I want the ghost out of him. I can't kill him. He's just a boy. He doesn't deserve this.

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